Cancer survivor, heart transplant recipient marks 1-year anniversary with marathon

By Alex Osiadacz

More than 106,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. Less than half of them will get the call this year that they're a match. And it's estimated that 5,000 people will die awaiting a transplant.

For those who match for a transplant, like a cancer survivor and physician from Florida, the process can be profound and renew hope.

Watch Running to a new beat: Heart transplant recipient to mark 1-year anniversary with marathon.

If you ask Dr. Dawn Mussallem, she defines herself as a mother, wife, daughter and physician.

But she is also a cancer survivor and a heart transplant recipient.

"In comparison to how I felt before my heart transplant, I just have this sense of being fully alive," says Dr. Mussallem, who is a breast health physician at Mayo Clinic.

She was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2000. Chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant helped her overcome that illness. But a diagnosis of heart failure followed.

By December 2019, Dr. Mussallem was listed for heart transplant at Mayo Clinic. After more than a year awaiting a match, Dr. Mussallem's health worsened, and she was admitted to the hospital. Then, in February 2021, her cardiologist got the call. It was good news.

"I named my heart. I named her Grace. And, so, sometimes, I'll just put my hand over my heart. And I will just thank her and thank the donor family because it's just amazing what they gave to me," says Dr. Mussallem.

The transplant was just the beginning of Dr. Mussallem's path to renewed health. Recovery and rehabilitation started immediately.

"It was incredibly challenging to walk that first walk. I remember how heavy my legs felt. And I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, why is this so hard.' But then the next day got easier, and the next day got easier. And, so, you just have to keep your eye on the prize. And that prize is just so rewarding," says Dr. Mussallem.

Gradually, she's gone from walking to running. Dr. Mussallem participated in multiple races, including a half-marathon months after her transplant.

"Exercise was just a huge passion of mine. And that was something that got really hijacked with my heart failure," says Dr. Mussallem.

Now she's making up for lost time.

"I want to make sure that I can take really good care of my heart. I want to make sure that I can embrace my family and do things that are special in life," says Dr. Mussallem.

She aims to run a full marathon to mark the one-year anniversary of her transplant as a nod to her patients and the donor who saved her life. It's a milestone Dr. Mussallem hopes will inspire others to live a healthy life.

"I'm so excited about this next journey in my life. And I'm just filled with joy over it," says Dr. Mussallem.

Watch more of Dr. Mussallem's journey from heart transplant recipient to marathon runner.

Editor's update Feb. 7, 2022: Dr. Mussallem successfully completed the 26.2 With Donna marathon on Sunday, Feb. 6, and shared her appreciation for the support of family, friends, her donor and her patients in a post on Facebook.

A version of this article was originally published on the Mayo Clinic News Network.